“Transparence, Opacité?”

Maison de la Villette

Caution: An exhibition of fourteen contemporary Chinese artists curated by a French philosopher specializing in Byzantine doctrines on the icon is likely to be about something more than the works presented. Indeed, the key element of the title “Transparence, opacité?” is neither “transparency” nor “opaqueness,” but the question mark at the end. And the questions in question, as philosopher-curator Marie-José Mondzain explains in the remarkable travelogue that serves as catalogue essay, have to do with what is physically, perceptually lacking in the individual works themselves: a succession of spaces, going from what she calls the traditional “space of readability and visibility” in Chinese culture to the potential space of a civil society in the making, via the contemporary space of the visual arts.

The 126 works on show—paintings, lithographs, silk screens, collages, photographs—were eclectic and uneven, but the often jarring contrasts of these different artistic spaces multiply the question marks within that other space which is the Western viewer’s mindset. With the exception of Hong Hao, seen in the 1998 traveling exhibition “Inside Out: New Chinese Art,” the rising stars of China’s international avant-garde were conspicuously absent. (“They’re imitating the most limited of the Western artists—the ones who are in the grip of the market,” maintains Mondzain.) Rather, the selection included diverse independents—art teachers, amateurs, “outsiders”—plus one professional photographer and his amateur “disciple,” as well as one photojournalist.

The issues of identity, collective and individual, traditional and modern, Eastern and Western, so often evoked in discussions of the new, post-Tiananmen, postliberalization Chinese art, were easily recognizable in the subjects and styles of the works themselves. But Mondzain’s focus is the how rather than the what, the acts of seeing and showing rather than what is seen or shown. Chinese art, language, and society alike, she argues, confront us with the “impenetrability of the visible, . . . the rejection of depth in the constantly moving displacement of meaning.” In the Middle Kingdom (as the Chinese call their country), the center is empty and the subject is not behind (as our one-point perspective would lead us to expect) but always beyond, beside, around.

The art historian’s basic compare-and-contrast exercise might well lead us to a similar analysis in formal terms, but Mondzain’s reading of “style,” as reflected in her choice of works, offered a much more complex statement about artist and society. We discovered, for example, how performance artist Zhang Dali (b. Harbin, 1963) seeks to impose the human subject on the city space by hacking his own profile into the crumbing walls of demolition sites in Beijing, literally poking holes in the image of urban “renewal”—and winding up in prison for this illegal intervention in the “public” space. Or how photojournalist Zhang Haier (b. Canton, 1957) illustrates his contention that “art advances where the others back away” by confronting us with embarrassingly close-up, close-cropped views of his society’s “bad” women and tough men. Or, most unexpectedly, how the civil servant Diao Shijing (b. Kunming, 1943), budding disciple of photographer Ren Qirui (b. Kunming, 1956), uses his camera—and the light of the moon—not to capture the countryside that he explored on foot for twenty years as a land surveyor but to transform it into a kind of topographical calligraphy. It the works of Zhang Dali and Zhang Haier impose a space of opposition, those of Diao Shijing imagine a space of freedom, from the laws of state and market alike.

Miriam Rosen